The Washington Capitals' best season in their 18-year history has come down to one game -- tonight's 7:35 game to decide the opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A berth in the Patrick Division finals is at stake for the Capitals, who finished second overall in the NHL, were second in goals scored and second in home record. A loss would be an ignominious blow, especially because the Capitals held a 3-1 lead in games on the defending Stanley Cup champions.
This was to be the Capitals' finest hour. They had been in the playoffs for 10 consecutive years but never advanced past the conference championship series. Things were to be different this time around. Even "The Cup" was a possibility.
Only eight teams in Stanley Cup history have come back from being down 3-1 in a series, and the Capitals have been involved in two of those series.
In 1988, the Capitals rallied from two down to beat the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1987, the Capitals were on the verge of eliminating the the Islanders only to lose the series, with the seventh game a four-overtime loss.
In both those deciding games, the Capitals had the home-ice advantage. How important is it to play at home in a crucial game like this?
"I think it's very important; it's our last chance and it's great to have it at home," said coach Terry Murray. "We played 80 games during the regular season to get the advantage, and we want to take advantage of it. We get the last change [of lines and defense], the home crowd is always a factor, and the pressure of playing at home pumps you up."
Washington goalie Don Beaupre, who has had an excellent series, downplayed the home ice. "I don't think the home-ice advantage is very important, maybe slightly, but if I had to say yes or no, it would be no," he said.
Washington defenseman Rod Langway, who has been on every Capitals playoff team, said he believes the Capital Centre gives his team an edge. "We still have a very big advantage and that is playing in our building," he said.
Washington center Mike Ridley says the Capitals can make their strong regular-season play pay off.
"We worked hard all year to get the home-ice advantage and we want it to mean something," he said. "It's going to be a tight game from the opening faceoff."
The Capitals stumbled after holding a two-game lead and now must find the winning formula again.
"We have to execute better, work harder, play with a more emotion the entire game and keep up our intensity," said Murray. "We have played sporadically in the last two games and we can't afford to do that again. We have set the tempo and maintain it the entire game."
For David Poile, the Washington general manager, the seventh game probably will determine whether off-season deals are necessary. "I'd like to have the momentum on our side, but when it comes down to it, now it's a one-game season," Poile said. "Playing at home can be a help. The crowd can be an intangible. The fans' noise level and the swishing of the white pompons could all help to take Pittsburgh out of its game.
"We have to be more consistent and stick to our game plan. We have to play like it's now or never."